OCTOBER 7, 2012
JUDGING BY HIS C.V., Mark Girouard is something of a toff. (That term doesn’t translate succinctly from the British but it refers to the sort of person satirized by Monty Python’s “upperclass twit of the year.”)
Girouard began his career in the 1950s as a writer and then editor at Country Life, the house organ of the English gentry, a magazine whose most closely read pages describe Georgian farmsteads, disused rectories, and other idyllic properties for sale to would-be squires. From journalism Girouard eventually found his way to the weightier enterprise of the scholarly coffee table book, producing a considerable number of volumes thick with color plates and liberally dusted with footnotes. For the most part these books deal with architecture, the field in which Girouard did his doctorate at Oxford, and attention is also paid to the social and cultural patterns of life that give the built environment its fullest meaning. This broad compass goes some way towards explaining the books’ popular appeal.
Girouard’s breakthrough as an author was Life in the English Country House, which became an unexpected bestseller for Yale when it appeared in 1978, and which was an expansion of the series of lectures he had delivered a few years earlier as Oxford’s Slade Professor of Art. This visiting professorship retains much of its original prestige a century and a half after it was inaugurated by Ruskin, the unhinged colossus of English art criticism, who was summoned to Oxford to lecture on landscape painting and in the end drove his well-born pupils to dig ditches in the countryside. To my knowledge the Slade Professorship is the only academic post that Girouard has ever held, but there is an old flavor in his written manner — a richness cut with tart irony; a plummy certitude of judgment; a savory marinade of table talk and gossip — reminiscent of a venerable Oxbridge style that is now more or less extinct, discredited, and even scorned. And perhaps rightfully so. This old intellectual order was after all the appendage of a ruling class whose empire is long gone, whose many faults are now apparent, and whose very existence seems repugnant in our present atmosphere of democratic scrupulosity.
But whatever else may be said about the old Oxbridge set, the best of them could write. At a time when scholarly prose is widely condemned as flaccid or obscure, the easy lucidity achieved by a formidable old don — an Evans-Pritchard, a Trevor-Roper, even a single-barrelled Marxist like Hobsbawm — is the product of a distinct tradition whose style has much to admire. It is in this tradition that Girouard writes. He achieves clarity and liveliness in his prose not by supposing that his audience is mostly ignorant and quickly bored, but by taking for granted that they are knowledgeable and curious, and that their interest will be held by a subtle raciness of phrase and thought: that they are, if not colleagues or friends, then at least provisional members of an inner circle whose assumptions, prejudices and tastes he largely shares. Though this inner circle is founded on exclusion, its rhetoric can be paradoxically open; always professional but impatient with jargon and never over-serious. The result is an almost conversational tone: and if the conversation seems to unfold over a decanter of port, that’s all the more appropriate, since the discussion has turned so frequently throughout Girouard’s career to baronial manors, castles, and the like. This is a world in which he is very much at home: his dissertation on the Elizabethan architect Robert Smythson was partially composed in the drawing room and on the loggia of Hardwick Hall, an impressive house that was built by Smythson and which belonged to Girouard’s great-aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. But let’s not hold that against him. His latest and perhaps last book demonstrates that he is not your run of the mill toff.
It may not have occurred to you to wonder what a person like Girouard reads while on the toilet, but the answer is disarmingly revealed in the pages of Enthusiasms, his new collection of essays on mostly literary topics. At one point he describes a bookshelf in his bathroom stocked with paperback biographies, including, alphabetically shelved between the memoirs of two rural churchmen, an abridged edition of My Secret Life, a work which was privately printed around 1890 and which chronicles the improbably energetic sexual career of its author, known only as “Walter,” in such vivid detail that it was unpublishable until the later 1960s. Girouard explains that as he dipped into this book one day he sensed the opening of an avenue that he hoped would lead him to the true identity of this strange Victorian pornographer. He then describes his energetic but ultimately fruitless journey into the heart of the enigma.
The essay on Walter, like the other pieces in Enthusiasms, was “designed for pleasure, not instruction,” as Girouard puts it in his introduction. This is a modest book, brief, and written expressly for fun. Its enterprise is gentle nitpicking. It is a book for those who feel a pang of sympathy when Girouard remarks that his casual reading has occasionally brought him into contact with “a clue that I want to follow up, a point that others seem to have overlooked, a misidentification that I long to correct, a neglected work that I would like to publicise, and so on.” He calls his expansions on these impulses “excursions,” and though their endpoints are trivial, the scenery is pleasant along the way, with many pungent character sketches and pronouncements that condense much knowledge, opinion, and insight.
As an architectural authority Girouard is particularly good on money, the lifeblood of that art, and social distinction, so frequently its object. These skills come to the fore in his essay on Oscar Wilde, which gives an unusual perspective on that author’s social ambitions and financial dissolution. Girouard is also a sensitive observer of the relationship between imaginative landscapes and the realities that inspire them; in several essays he draws new lines of connection between works of art and real people, places, and events. And like the very best critics Girouard writes about authors in a way that inspires one to read them, whether he’s discussing old favorites like Wilde, Austen, and Wodehouse, or lesser known writers like Charlotte Mew and Marjorie Fleming. Ultimately this is the great virtue of the book. The last three essays, less essential, deal with Girouard’s family, which includes rambunctious colonial forebears as well as the aforementioned Dowager Duchess.
This is, again, a modest book; the indulgence of an old man at the end of his career. Girouard’s achievement here is not that of the critical theorist who dazzles with interpretive conjuring; nor that of the literary critic who reveals deep truths with close reading; nor that of the scholar who slowly abrades ignorance with erudition. Instead he plays the raconteur. His tales tell of the pleasures of old books, of research conducted in great libraries, of knowledge gleaned from the study of old maps, of inspiration that arrives while reading on the toilet. Enthusiasms is mild fare, but for some it will be irresistible.